Greg Clifton has been the Flagstaff City Manager since August 2019 and is a member of the ECoNA Board of Directors. We asked him about his background and how Flagstaff has fared during these extraordinary times.
Q: Please share a little bit of your background with us. Are you originally from Colorado?
A: I am not originally from Colorado, but spent about 45 years living there; my family had a summer cabin in Silverthorne. Prior to moving to Colorado, I lived in the Midwest. I come from a large family and my siblings live all over the place, from Vancouver, British Columbia to Florida. I elected to stay put in Colorado and lived my adult life there, until the recent move to Flagstaff. That move has proven to be very good, as the environment here and the local vibe is much like what we left in southwestern Colorado.
I have a spouse, Tammy, and we are on our 36th year together. We actually thought that this year was going to be our 35th year, and only recently realized that our math was slightly wrong – oops. We have two kids, both grown and doing quite well. Our son, Travis, lives with his spouse in Colorado Springs. Our daughter, Emily, is also married and lives in Bend, Oregon. We feel pretty fortunate, especially now that grandkids are in the works.
Q: You started off as an attorney. What made you decide to transition from the law to municipal administration?
A: My professional background is a bit mixed between municipal law and management. I enjoy management and even though I have maintained my license to practice law, that is now behind me. That said, I really enjoy working with the attorneys here at the City. The legal team here rocks!
The switch in my career occurred after I served two separate stints as ‘acting manager’ during periods of manager vacancy. It was really not by design; they were just interim stints, which occurs frequently during periods of transition. There was gratification in doing this, which ultimately brought about a shift in career path. Management offers more of a ‘hands on’ approach to community service. The many projects, programs, partnerships, and always the complex problem solving. There is a lot of opportunity to be a part of something much bigger. So I returned to school and received my Masters in Public Administration, and made the shift complete.
Q: Most of your work life prior to coming to northern Arizona two years ago was in Colorado, most notably as the Town Manager in Telluride and Vail. How does Flagstaff compare?
Flagstaff has a few comparisons to Telluride from my perspective. First, there is a very engaged community here, people are in tune with their natural and social surroundings, and there is a true appreciation for the natural landscape. Those values are quite evident in Telluride as well. Outdoor recreation is not simply an amenity, it is a way of life for many. Another commonality is the embracement of cultural diversity. While Telluride may not be as ethnically diverse, there is a strong foundation for inclusivity there. Also, both communities enjoy a great downtown vibe with a lot of appreciation for history, culture, music, and the arts.
The big difference is that Flagstaff is a city (which feels like a town) that has a broad make-up in terms of citizenry, economy, and institutions. And while many come here to enjoy the surroundings and the cooler climate, we are not solely reliant upon the tourism industry. Many ski towns in Colorado are trying quite hard to have the diversity that we enjoy here.
Q: What’s top of mind for most residents recently has been the flooding. What challenges is the City facing as you deal with this issue?
Our biggest challenge is that of infrastructure. It is not to suggest that the flooding events of recent would have all been mitigated with better infrastructure. The debris flow from the Museum fire scar could not be stopped, and that unbelievable deluge that hit the Mt. Elden area recently was a 200-year event. That stated, we really need to invest more in our stormwater infrastructure. Extreme weather is the new norm, and Flagstaff is seeing this firsthand. Droughts, wildfires, floods, and all within a short period of time. A lot of focus has been on the Rio de Flag project, justifiably, but many places outside of the Rio watershed are in need of capital upgrades to the stormwater system. The Sunnyside community is one example for sure.
Q: How do you feel the City is rebounding from the pandemic?
Very well, I think. I would give the City a very high grade here. The City was the first to issue an emergency proclamation and take proactive measures at the front end of the pandemic. Our Re-Entry Plan was well formulated early in the process and now, with the benefit of some hindsight, it has really served our community well. We are still in Phase III of that Plan, which translates into some restrictions with hours of operation, spacing, etc. But from day one in this pandemic, the City never slowed it’s overall operations and functions. We quickly figured out the possibilities to work remotely, we offered curbside services at our libraries, and we opened up rights of way for outdoor seating. The Re-Entry Team that was put together has done a masterful job in overseeing this, and our City Council, with assistance from our Technology Team, has performed quite well in a virtual realm.
Q: How about economically?
The City’s economic vitality has remained strong throughout the events that we have addressed here (flooding, fires, COVID), and others that we have not mentioned (the economic recession being the big one). During the worst of our recession, and with the City’s Recession Plan to guide us, we fared pretty well, and exceeded our economic projections. This can be attributed to a lot of factors: a diverse economy as noted above, with NAU, Northern Arizona Health, Gore Medical, and other strong foundations. Retail sales remained strong, the building industry never saw a downturn, and we even managed well with tourism-related revenues. The Flagstaff community proved to be quite resilient during a significant economic downturn. It is also worth noting that the low interest rates a year ago enabled the City to refinance its public safety pension, which proved to be a huge savings. So we seized upon some opportunities.
Q: You’re a member of several organizations in town, aren’t you?
Yes! In addition to being on the ECoNA Board, I serve on the boards of United Way of Northern Arizona and the Flagstaff Downtown Business Alliance. I’m also involved with the Flagstaff Arts Council, now known as Creative Flagstaff, and the Coconino Plateau Water Advisory Council.
Q: City Manager is kind of a 24/7 position, but when you do have free time, how do you spend it?
Like many, the time in the outdoors is greatly valued, whether it’s working in the yard, hiking the trails, biking, camping, or fly fishing (the fly fishing is a little remote here; that one takes some effort!) Skiing has been a lifelong pursuit – and has evolved into a love for telemarking. Yes, you can label me as one of those granola-types doing the weird genuflect turns on the slopes.
Photography is another passion and there is no shortage of beauty here to capture behind the lens of a camera. It’s a great way to be in the moment and focus on the subject matter in front of one’s self. There are many outings spent in the canyons here and in Utah. And Bluegrass music always puts me in my happy place! Can’t wait for Pickin’ in the Pines.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
It is an honor to serve this community. The staff at the City are second to none. I work with so many talented and devoted people who will do anything for the betterment of this community.